From above on the airbus, Grot does not appear to be a city, but Bahati assures Imani it is. Unlike the capital which is a cluster of mostly steel or glass buildings, the Low District of Grot is a system of high mounds arranged in no particular order. Some of the mounds are high, while others are so low, they can be overlooked.
“Like what you see?” Bahati says, as the airbus descends.
“I do. It’s opposite of what the capital is,” Imani says honestly.
Imani’s fascination dwindles when she notices how no one else looks out the window. They are drab people in drabber clothes. She notices Bahati is dressed like the others, in a ragged shirt and pants.
“Why is everyone so sad?” Imani says, gesturing to the others on the crowded bus.
“They aren’t sad. They’re tired. They’re just getting off work,” Bahati says.
“So, they work in the capital and live here? Why don’t they just move to the capital?”
She shrugs. “I’m sure they would if they could afford it.”
The two girls are the last to leave the bus. Bahati had been insistent they sit at the back. That way, they could keep their eyes on everyone. She’d had trouble in Grot before and thought they should take every measure to avoid it on their trip. Imani had simply nodded, not truly understanding the dangers of their journey.
As they pass high mounds decorated with handcrafted signs and doormats, Imani listens to and watches everything. Men and woman brush past, rushing to get to wherever they are going, not glancing twice at Bahati but offering strange looks at Imani. The capital has an antiseptic smell to it like has just been doused in cleaning solution. Grot smells like greasy food and garbage.
“Mother used to bring me and Ekon here. I don’t remember the last time she did, but Ekon used to hate it here. He called the people peasants,” Bahati says, waving at a passing little girl.
“Why do you like it so much? It smells weird here,” Imani says thoughtfully.
“The people in the capital are fake. Too...” Bahati says, searching for the word and giving up. “It’s authentic here.”
A man with long teeth and rough scales wipes down his stand while yelling from the sidewalk, “Fresh fish. Clean water.” He invites the girls over, but Bahati declines. When out of earshot, she recounts a time eating the vendor’s food only to find it was rotten. She says he never leaves that spot, and even though it is a busy area, not many people buy from him.
Bahati tells Imani to pay attention so that she can tell the people who work in the capital from those who do not. The ones who work there pay Imani no mind. The ones who do not point at her or stare. They have few bots here. Most people can not afford them. Even if they could, they are proud people who do not feel as if they need help from anyone around their homes.
They pass a team of men and women digging a hole. Bahati explains each of the homes and businesses are built directly from dirt and reinforced with red clay. The people of Grot have lived in mounds since the beginning of documented history. They are traditionalists, not much for change. Ekon calls mounds glorified caves, but Bahati tells Imani they are much more.
The establishment they stop in front of is no different from the other mounds, except it has a sign in front of it.
“Creo’s. Best grub in town,” Imani says, reading aloud. Bahati promises her the sign is true to its word. She claims she has not ever had a bad meal from here.
“Bahati. Long time, no peep,” says a man as they pass through the entrance. He is not old, but he is older. He has the wispy thin hair of most reptilians, but his head is larger. The definition of his muscles no longer show with the tightness of his shirt, but Imani can tell he used to be muscular.
He hugs Bahati and points to Imani. “Who’s your friend?”
“Creo, this is Imani. Imani, Creo,” Bahati says.
“Nice to meet you, Imani,” he says. He leans in to whisper to Bahati. “You shouldn’t be walking around with a bot. People will assume you have money.”
“That’s why I had her dress in a dirty dress and holey shoes. If anyone asks, I’ll say I found her in the dump.”
“Your world,” he says, spreading his hands. “Let’s get you to a table.”
Imani admires the place, as she hears food sizzling in the kitchen. It is not as grand as the places she had seen with Khalia in the capital. Yet it has a more natural aura. The ceiling is shaped like a bowl, giving it a wider feel, and the area is well lit. Everything is made of grey or black stone, obviously chiseled by hand. The intoxicating smell of food makes her lick her lips, and she realizes this is the first time her stomach has ever growled.
She situates herself on the concrete seats she has become accustomed to using. Reptilians have no need for soft seating, so it is rare and expensive. It is unavailable in my many places, even in the capital. The rough surface scrapes Imani’s thighs, as she shifts to the middle of the seat to sit directly across from Bahati.
Glancing over the menu, Imani sees most of the selection is seafood. The restaurant serves steamed crab, sautéed fish and other similar dishes. The swamp stew catches her attention and Bahati strongly recommends it. Though the seasoning is a restaurant secret, Bahati says it is worth having. Creo takes their order and disappears to the kitchen.
“Why do you like the food here so much?” Imani asks. She has to raise her voice because the other customers are a loud, rowdy bunch, singing songs and yelling.
“I told you, it’s authentic. This is real food. Most of what’s served in the capital is not grown or hunted. It is made by reptilians. Synthetic food,” says Bahati, cracking her knuckles.
“They probably have synthetic food here as well.”
“Trust me. You can’t make this food in a lab.”
Creo drops off their plates and tells them to enjoy. Bahati instructs Imani on how to use a spoon. Imani scoops up some stew and a white lump of meat. She singes her tongue and drops the spoon on the table, fanning her hand at her mouth. Bahati laughs so hard, tears dampen her cheeks.
“As you can see from the steam rising from your bowl, the food is hot. You may want to blow on each spoonful, or you’ll lose your tongue,” Bahati warns, still laughing.
Imani tries again, slower this time. When she is sure the stew is cool enough, she eats some, chewing awkwardly. The flavors explode on her tongue. There is a spiciness with an underlying sweetness that urges her to go back for more. Eventually, she drops the spoon and drains the bowl above her mouth. A bubble of air bursts from her mouth.
Bahati looks at her, then at the half finished fish on her own plate. “Wow. Did not see that coming,” the reptilian says, handing Imani a napkin. “Try wiping your mouth.”
The napkin is thick and coarse, so Imani gently dabs her face. “That was delicious. It tasted so, so good. I want more.” And so, she has two more bowls of stew and cramps come. “I don’t feel so good,” she says, queasiness settling upon her.
“I’m sure you don’t,” Bahati says, finally finishing her own food.
The door to the restaurant opens, and Imani turns to see two boys and a girl walk in. The trio is loud but obnoxious, yelling for Creo. He greets them, telling them a booth will be available shortly. They do not seem too pleased to have to wait but take seats in the waiting area. As they do, the biggest one, the one in the heavy black jacket turns in their direction.
“Well, if it isn’t Princess Bahati. Look everyone, we have a visitor from the capital,” Black Jacket says loudly. The other patrons quiet down.
“How nice to see you, Damu,” Bahati says, standing. “But I’m no princess, and me and my friend were just leaving.”
“Did I say ‘princess’? I meant dog. Now, Stay a while. Have a drink with me. I’ve always wanted to meet a bot,” Damu says, his other companions standing to block the exit.
Imani feels the tension. No threats have been issued, but they are there in the grins of Damu and his gang. He gets close enough for her to smell his foul body odor and see the tattoos etched on his face. They are cruel things, done by someone without skill.
Bahati tries to step around Damu, but he blocks her path twice. Imani can sense Bahati’s anger. Imani’s emotions are still somewhat dulled by the updates, but a slow sense of panic simmers in her. She knows this whole thing will explode into a bout of violence in a minute.
“Enough of this,” Creo says, stepping between Bahati and Damu. He places a hand on Damu’s shoulder. “I have a table for you and your friends. Your meals are on me.”
“That’s cool. Thanks,” Damu says, finally taking his eyes off Bahati. As Imani and Bahati leave the restaurant, he says, “I’ll see you later, Princess.”